Sundays in Satin: The Eloquence of Gwendolyn Brooks
“Save some of those for me, Michael, before you gobble them all up.”
I was having afternoon tea with Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, the grand lady of African American poetry. It was a full British tea, following a reading she gave at Rutgers in Camden, New Jersey, where I was on the path to tenure. White linen surrounded us, waves of billows foaming, and my faith was focused mostly on the endlessness of the little sandwiches I was plopping into my mouth as if they were candies. It was her treat, so she did not hesitate to take umbrage with my lack of manners. In the few times that I spent in her company, I was always overcome by the feeling that I was in the presence of royalty. It was the fact of her achievements, beginning with the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a black writer in any genre, a prize she won when I had not even been imagined. My parents were still dating. I really can imagine a world without me, a world where the context of being a black poet was being built by my predecessors, including Langston Hughes, who encouraged the teenager who would win the Pulitzer.
If I may take the liberty of referring to her by the shortened version of her first name, Gwen was brave enough to say she preferred “black” over “African American,” as the latter has too many syllables. She was an exquisite formalist, moved by language as much as subject. I like to think hers was a simultaneous creativity. She embodied English with a soul steeped in the process of observing black culture. The result was her own unique eloquence.
Those of us who love her work have favorites, of course, but my savoring of her work always comes back to a moment when she shared something of her life with me. She once explained how she and her husband lived in modest circumstances in Chicago when they were young, and how the people she lived with became the populace of Annie Allen. I have always conceived people from a distance, an internal distance, whereas she eyed people closely. She once asked me if I wrote about the people in my neighborhood. She moved among people in an intimate, observant way, and I read her work as mirrors of her own self-investigation. She wrote of what she admired, of her people and of her own self, as in “the rites for Cousin Vit,” where she revisits the theme of “Sadie and Maud,” the Don’t Bees and Do Bees, a theme that crosses gender, race, and class. Gwen’s treatment of that and other human aspects in the overarching structure of her eloquence makes her poetry the humanizing force I think it is throughout. The belief in universal humanity is prerequisite to being human, a perhaps obvious fact. However, the fact that it is a singular challenge to the black American poet may not be so obvious.
When I read her poem “The Blackstone Rangers,” I remember Gwen was so much the lady. I have a memory of her with pocketbook in hand, stepping along in full grace and dignity, a daughter of a period of harsh racial realities. She was born in 1917, just two years before the 1919 race riot in Chicago, known as the Red Summer. Race riots, ready in consequence, erupted in cities across the nation. Gwen’s parents moved to Chicago not long after she was born, and she was a toddler in the city during the Red Summer. In Chicago, blacks defended themselves against white attackers, a notable resistance. In her poem about the gang known as The Blackstone Rangers, she brings her fierce intelligence and courageous demeanor to bear on the complex subject of adolescent resistance in a time of social rebellion. The character Mary asks of her gang suitor, “Where did you get the diamond?” as the poet brings all the painful complexities of a democracy full of contradictions to bear in one question centering on the creation of something beautiful. The poet’s eloquence is like the diamond, brilliant and enduring.
We ask with what chisel the poet crafts her eloquence, and the answer is love. Gwen described herself as an “…organic Chicagoan.” She loved the city in its entirety, and she loved black people.
In her steadfast way of moving in life, of being, in her solid belief in the dignity and complex humanity of black people, Gwendolyn Brooks made the rendering of black eloquence her mission, the nervous system of her poetic project. In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Countee Cullen is in awe of the idea that God would make a poet black. For Brooks, it was not something to be held in awe. Being black and being a poet is the way it should be. To me, her work shows that she saw the gift as something to which she was fully entitled, a gift she was much deserving of as anyone. Black folk have created an existence in the peculiar structures of American English, beginning in the mid to late-1600’s with their gradual enslavement and the suppression of their native languages and cultures. Albert Murray’s perceived black folk as the “Omni-Americans,” which is to say the defining pattern for the “American,” at once molded in the original traumas of the country and denied fuller access in the democracy. Ms. Brooks’s work goes beyond Cullen’s surprise to claim her own heart as a poet and to celebrate the people who have had the axis of America’s democratic contradictions ground into their souls.
Gwen saw the poet’s work as making that axis a loom of celebratory fire, one that redefines not only beauty but the whole project of being an American. It is a kind of faith that took mountains of fortitude, a strength inside the soul of the lady gliding along in full grace and dignity. That faith is what is meant by the persistence of tradition when tradition is not a binding call to monolithic loyalty in aesthetics but the realization of the need of a group of people to have the songs of their souls celebrated in poetry, from the ecclesiastical voice of Marian Anderson to the vernacular of Wu Tang Clan.
Gwendolyn Brooks worked inside the full spectrum of the culture of black people, understanding all along the density and sometimes imponderable disconnects of a culture that is intrinsically American despite persistent oppression in a creative cauldron of violent ironies.
Afaa Michael Weaver (蔚雅風 in Chinese, and previously Michael S. Weaver) was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, where he attended public schools. After two years of study at the University of Maryland-College Park, he later earned his BA at Regents College-University of the State of New York (now Excelsior College)...